Older German Jewish Communities Honored

Communities in the cradle of Ashkenazi Judaism in Germany have been declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites

By Yossi Aloni | | Topics: diaspora
Gravestones in the old Jewish cemetery 'Heiliger Sand' in Worms Photo: RONALD WITTEK/EPA-EFE

UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – has declared Jewish cultural property in Mainz, Speyer and Worms, communities on the banks of the Rhine River in Germany, as World Heritage Sites.

Jewish settlement in the Rhine region is considered the oldest settlement of Ashkenazi Jewry. Speyer, Worms and Mainz were closely connected with each other in the Middle Ages as so-called SchUM cities and were also called "Jerusalem on the Rhine." SchUM is an abbreviation of the medieval Hebrew initial letters of the cities: Schp (Sch), Waw (U) and Mem (M), which stand for the three city names Schpira, Warmaisa and Magenza. SchUM communities are considered the cradle of Ashkenazi Judaism and were interconnected in everything from architecture, culture and religious rulings.

By the 11th century, the three cities were already very influential Jewish centers. Rabbi Gershom, "Maor Hagola" (Great Light), worked in Magenza at the beginning of the 10th century alongside Rabbi Shimon the Great. This was followed by the development of yeshivas (Jewish schools of learning) headed by his disciples and other sages: the Yeshiva of the Sages of Lutir headed by Rabbi Eliezer the Great ben Yitzchak in Magenza, the yeshiva of Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar and Rabbi Yitzchak Halevi in ​​Warmaisa and the yeshiva of Rabbi Elyakim ben Meshulam in Schpira. Magenza was considered the most important of the three.

Emperor Heinrich IV gave the communities of the Rhine various letters of defense. Among other things, Heinrich stated in his letters of defense that the Jews of the cities would be exempt from custom taxes and that each of the communities would be headed by a "bishop" to be elected by the community.

After the destruction of the communities in the Rhineland massacres in the wake of the Crusades, there was a need to regulate the nature of the communities' conduct towards the local authorities. The communities installed joint "SchUM regulations" that were a response to the local and unique problems of the Ashkenazi and French communities in the Middle Ages.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass welcomed the decision by UNESCO to honor the communities saying, “It is a wonderful gift this year to mark 1,700 years of Jewish life in Germany."

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